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New Conservative Initiative Reaches Out to the Intermarried

Reprinted with permission of JTA. Visit JTA.org.

BOSTON, Mass., Dec. 7 (JTA)--The Conservative movement needs to go beyond opening its doors to intermarried families and begin working actively to integrate them fully into congregational life, while continually suggesting to the non-Jews in those families that they consider conversion.

That's the crux of a new keruv, or outreach, initiative presented Tuesday evening at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism biennial by the organization's executive vice president, Rabbi Jerome Epstein.

More than a year in the making, the initiative, which includes an explanation of the thinking behind the initiative as well as a detailed action plan for rabbis and congregations, includes input from all the major bodies in the Conservative movement. It's being mailed to every Conservative professional and lay leader in North America. For too long, Epstein told conference delegates, the Conservative movement has at best "merely welcomed" intermarried families, and often has rejected them.

Instead, he said, Conservative congregations should work to bring the entire family into congregational life, encouraging the couple to raise Jewish children and encouraging the non-Jewish spouse to convert. To that end, Epstein proposed using the word "edud," or "encouragement," rather than "keruv," to emphasize the movement's new focus--not just on converting the non-Jew, but on educating him or her to be a committed Jew.

"Too often we act as if being warm, welcoming and supportive is our goal, and it is not!" Epstein said in a veiled reference to the Reform approach.

While improving initial outreach to intermarried families is "a vital first step," he said, the ultimate goal of the new Conservative outreach is inspiring the intermarried non-Jew "to choose Judaism out of conviction that Jewish living will enrich their lives."

With the Edud initiative, the Conservative movement is suggesting a more active welcome to interfaith families just weeks after the Union for Reform Judaism at its biennial in Houston advocated openly suggesting to the non-Jewish spouse that he or she convert.

"If we believe that Jewish family life is important, let us say so sensitively but passionately," Epstein said. "We must begin aggressively to encourage conversions of potential Jews who have chosen a Jewish spouse. And if conversion is initially rejected, we must continue to place it on the agenda."

To bring children of mixed marriages into Jewish life, "special outreach" is needed to ensure their Jewish education, Epstein said. While not laying down rules for the movement's Solomon Schechter schools, youth programs and camps, the new initiative proposes special scholarships and extra attention for children of intermarriage.

At discussion sessions after the presentation, people talked about their experiences with intermarriage and tried to hammer out positions for their congregations to take.

In general, participants seemed to feel that the initiative was long overdue. Even though it would introduce even more complexity into a movement that already has an equivocal relationship to Jewish law, many people felt the keruv initiative was necessary.

"I don't know that we have to be happy about it, but we have to address it," Richard Price of Aberdeen, N.J. said of intermarriage, which he noted "has touched my own family."

Price said he hopes the keruv initiative wasn't created simply because of the Conservative movement's declining numbers, but is "about addressing the human needs of the people involved."

The Conservative movement doesn't dictate outreach policy to member congregations, and some people were surprised to find out that not every Solomon Schechter school requires non-Jewish children to convert within a year of admission, as the movement recommends--or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, that not every supplementary school accepts non-Jewish children up until their bar or bat mitzvah.

Marilyn Feinberg of Kalamazoo, Mich., said non-Jewish children of intermarried families are accepted in her congregation's school without question.

"In adult conversion we educate first, so why not do that with the child?" she said. "It doesn't make sense to wait until they're 13."

Some delegates wondered if new rabbis coming out of Conservative seminaries would be up-to-date on the more activist approach. Others spoke about their conflicted feelings about attending intermarriages, especially those of friends' children.

Some expressed relief that the keruv initiative seems to give them permission to talk about conversion while still welcoming the intermarried couple.

"It needs some tweaking, but it's a very strong beginning," said Judy Kornblith of Pittsburgh, Pa.

Ed Case, director of InterfaithFamily.com, an outreach group based in Newton, Mass., said he welcomed the keruv initiative, but called its emphasis on conversion as the ultimate goal "disturbing."

"Many couples that are willing to explore and gradually get involved in Jewish life will be deterred if they think or are told that conversion is the synagogue's goal," Case said, adding that "most interfaith families will continue to affiliate with the Reform movement."

That may be true, Conservative leaders say. But the new approach is aimed at welcoming those non-Jews who have married Jews already in Conservative congregations, and focusing attention on the continued social and educational needs of new converts seeking affiliation with Conservative shuls.

"A lot of our young people are intermarried, and we lose almost all of them," said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism. "I'm not suggesting our rabbis do intermarriages, but we need to find more ways to make them welcome, so their children will be Jews and maybe down the road they'll convert."

The outreach document is called "al ha'derech," or "on the path," an indication that it's not meant to dictate policy but rather suggest a way to guide what the movement is now calling "potential Jews" toward greater Jewish involvement.

"It's a focus, indicating where we'll spend our time and energy," Dorff said. "We should have been doing this 10 years ago."

Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "bringing close," a term meaning Jewish outreach. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the West Coast correspondent for JTA. Formerly a features writer and New York correspondent for The Jerusalem Post, her first book, The Rebbe's Army: Inside the World of Chabad-Lubavitch (Schocken, 2003), was named one of the best religion books of 2003 by Publisher's Weekly.

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